Landscape archaeology under the Mount Elbrus – two weeks of vodka, dust and prehistoric tumuli

September 18th, 2019 § 2

“Russia is like a woman. Pretty, passionate but unfathomable” (Osman M. B.)

Pavel Vařeka & his Melody Boys from Pilsen archaeological department invited me to join the Czech expedition to Caucasus sometime in October 2018 and such an offer can not be refused. We jumped there from Russian (northern) side and were focused on valleys around Mount Elbrus. Or, better to say, Karachayevsk Uni was our alma mater and healing basecamp after hangeovers for two weeks.

Anyone traveling here (it is not correct to call it “almost Asia”; I suggest better term “Turkic world”) knows the most important thing is – a connection or local friend or simply someone who introduces you in. We had the best imaginable background – students of history and Mr. Osman Magometovich Batchayev before all. Spasiba za gostepriimstvo.

The magic country

Caucasus and steppes around are real magic country – warm brown with teeth of rocky towers and deep erosion ravines. I never saw such blue/green clear water as of Kuban before in my life (and never at all realize, reading the memoirs of A. I. Pokryshkin of Kuban air dogfights I would find myself there). Huh, I met a wolf firstly in my life there…
The decaying residues of soviet era are omnipresent. From the traces of abandoned villages (Stalin’s crazy resettlement of whole nations) to ideological monuments reminding the “Camp of Peace” presence. Maybe it would be meaningful to do the “archaeology of Soviet Union” here…


There is n department of archaeology in Karachayevsk university – only the history one. Local studies of deep history are of the nature of 19. century – simple narrative nationalistic fairy tales printed on low quality paper. And its a pity while this is unbelievable rich reservoir of all kind of archaeological sources you could imagine – from prehistoric tumuli fields, Kchazar fortresses, medieval churches to old field delimitation, preserved historic roads etc… The land around is pastoral, not agricultural and no doubt this helps to preserve the landscape palimpsest. What a contrast to middle european land type…
Looking around one would understand the obsession of archaeo-ethographical studies in former USSR while half of the villages seem to be constructed and maintained from middle ages. The details changed (lets say – roads and electricity) but the way of live and economy stays the same for ages (= effective and functional). The best mean of transport is still a horse and donkey, te best defence is your personal weapon and the chain of your family and friends. Interesting fact – while there were a lot of state policemen “down on plains” (controlling Your papers every crossroad), I never met any in caucasian hills. OK, archaeology…
We had no compact plan and strict schedule (from my point of view the only disadvantage) but roaming around Kuban river, enjoying villages and documenting anything of our taste – rural architecture (old water mill from 16. century), lanscape markers (Bronze age tumuli; Khazar fortress of Daut), sacral architecture. Mostly from UAV, something by close range photogrammetry. Generaly speaking we were testing the possibilities how to do things there as preparing stage for next seasons.

Everyday life in the territory of Kuban and around Karachayevsk

Girls. Surely You know the eastern (but not so far eastwards) girls are the pretiest of the world, but those from North Caucasus are something extraordinary even in the frame of this statement. The magic (or diabolic?) look of blue-eyed, black-haired Cherkessks with gazelle shaped tall bodies is far away of any beauty category. Well, not sure if advantage or damnation for our tortured imagination but there is no chance to start a dialog with them “somewhere in the street” or even in the bar. Lofty princesses are absolutely unreachable for poor, ugly and fat academicals from somewhere… over the hills in forgotten lands :). They never at all speak to us – any communication is realised through brother, father or just any male friend…
A few moments of everyday life routine (standard for local guys but not for us – cold and boring civilised freaks from the “West”) – anyone we met on the street in any village considered as an obligation to invite us for a tea. A tea means a lot of time of tea, coffey, excellent food and gossips about the world. We have to learn a lot about hospitality in from these lands, I am pretty sure they had a lot of everyday work to do but always found a hour or two to care about us in a best possible way.
Typical question from their side was a salary rate:
Local: “How much do You earn over there, in Europe?”.
Me: “Hm, not sure but something around one thousand EUR (recalculated to russian rubles)”
Local: “Woooow, thats briliant, unbelievable, You have to be a very rich and noble man there…” – saying someone who apparently earn less than thousand EUR but has a ten horses, hundred sheeps, a few terrain cars and two houses… :)
Btw, houses.

Village houses

A village architecture there is a cultural phenomenon spreading from Danube river to Western China – poor people living in nice wooden traditional houses of uncertain age (from medieval to 2nd WW), those buying BMWs in Germany selling in Turkey usualy build a house of so called “businessman baroque” – the more kitch the better. I was quite surprised of wooden construction durability in Caucasus – dry wind and cold winter leads to wood hardening (anyone being in e.g. wet and warm Malaysia surely knows what I mean). The unifying thing of all village buildings is a gate with rhombic decoration, although the realization varies very significantly according social status of inhabitants. I would use more appropriate term than “rhombic” but today nature of a danger internet does not allow me to do so…

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